David Tebbutt, Teblog

Confession time: I get a horrible sinking feeling when I hear terms like ’EU’, ’human rights’ or ’observatory’. When they come at me all at once, my usual temptation is to run away. But, this time I didn’t. Perhaps it was curiosity about Microsoft’s involvement, perhaps it was the hint of democracy, but I stuck with it. The ’it’ being a recent announcement by the European Environmental Agency (EEA from now on) that it had entered into a five-year alliance with Microsoft to create an environmental observatory.

The observatory’s purpose, as the name implies, is to gather information about local environmental conditions and share this with any interested party, including members of the public. The data will come from a multitude of sources including data satellites, NGOs, ornithological and wildlife organisations and the hoi polloi. Much of it will be real-time and it will be aggregated, analysed and presented back to enquirers in an appropriate form. That can include data tables for further processing or geo-spatial images in Microsoft’s Virtual Earth. The hope is that such information will lead to rapid local action such as when a factory is spotted polluting the air or soil.

Microsoft will be playing its part in each of these elements: collecting, storing, analysing and sharing the results. It has been working with the EEA since the summer of 2007 and has gone public on the five-year agreement which it believes is entirely complementary to the company’s own commitment to environmental sustainability.

Suspecting the worst, I investigated Microsoft’s environmental credentials. After all, in cahoots with Intel, it did spend a lot of years more or less enticing people into equipment upgrades. My conclusion is that the company is sincere in its intentions and has already made great strides in dealing with its own environmental footprint, especially with regard to cutting travel and single occupant vehicle usage. It even runs a huge bus fleet for its staff which aims to reduce car traffic in the Redmond area by more than 250,000 miles per week. Not to mention saving the Microsoft campus land area needed for parking and garaging facilities. This is one of the sad aspects of environmental actions, they often save the company money so bragging runs the risk of appearing somewhat two-faced.

But, returning to the EEA project, Professor Jacqueline McGlade, its executive director, suggested that, “To sustain the improvements in the environment made over the past few
decades, everyone needs to be involved and understand the consequences
and impact of their actions.” She added, “The only way to do this is by reaching out to the widest audience.
This collaboration with Microsoft is a groundbreaking approach to bring
environmental information to as many people as possible.” This rather assumes they have a) access to a suitably equipped computer and b) the will to look. I would have thought that traditional media will be the best way to reach these people. The other issue with this statement, taken as a whole, is that she refers to improvements made over the past few decades. This suggests that the actions required are already understood and merely need communicating.

It seems to me that although this project is being billed as a citizen information system, it is actually much more of a citizen spying system. Most people would be more interested in snitching on local sources of pollution than in logging in periodically to check local environmental conditions. However, you can be sure that certain powers-that-be will be very keen on this sort of real-time information. It’s a chance for them to swiftly crack down on miscreants, for which we should all be grateful, assuming that things don’t get too petty.

In the end, I remain puzzled by the publicity exercise around this. I suspect that Microsoft considers the EEA to be a good notch to have in its corporate social responsibility stick. And maybe the EEA wanted a bit of profile and Microsoft provided an ideal delivery vehicle.

But I’d like to think I’m wrong. Perhaps you see it differently…

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